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3 Mistakes You Might Make After Your Child's Bad Semester, and How to Fix Them!

Dr. Joel Ingersoll

Founder, Take On College

· College,High School,Parenting

The results are rolling in... Semester grades are final and holiday or summer plans are kicking off!

How do you rate your child’s college experience this past semester? How do they rate it? What goals did they fulfill or miss? But most importantly in this moment -- how were their grades, and how can you help them do better next semester?

When college students have a bad semester, they often react with a loss of self-confidence and increased doubt in their ability to succeed. They may fear disappointing their parents, too, so your expressed concerns about the investment you’re making in their college education can add anxiety and tension to the situation.

The good news is that a bad semester is usually caused by correctable factors, so the potential for better academic performance lies ahead. The trick is to parent-coach now and use effective approaches that put your child in the best position to succeed next semester.

Here are 3 take-away insights into the most common mistakes parents make when their students come home with poor grades, and how to fix them!

Mistake #1: Hoping History Won’t Repeat Itself

It’s easy to ignore previous bad grades and hope they’ll improve on their own, without intervention. It’s also easy to miss patterns in your student's thinking and lifestyle that inhibit their academic performance. Helping them increase awareness of their difficulties enhances their development of resiliency (the ability to bounce back from adversity) -- a key college and career success skill!

How to fix it:

Ask your student to list three thoughts or reactions they had when they started to see low grades, or got their final marks. Use single words or short phrases. Look for comments blaming professors, roommates, or others; expressions of chronic stress, frustration, deep disappointment, or lack of confidence; and/or negative self-talk like "I'm no good at studying" or, "I can't keep up."

For each item your child lists, ask them to imagine how they could think or react differently next time, in ways that allow them to bounce forward with confidence. For example, instead of “Felt overwhelmed,” your student could choose, “Look for time management help.”

Mistake #2: Setting Unclear Goals

As you're discussing this semester's academic trouble, you’re probably hearing a some generic promises like “I’ll study harder,” or, "I'll party less," or, “I’ll get better grades next time.” General goals are a start, but without specific action steps and accountability plans, students will usually repeat and reinforce self-sabotaging behaviors. And an actionless, unmeasurable goal won't generate any motivating anticipation, or vision of how awesome it'll feel when they accomplish the goal!

How to fix it:

Challenge your child to clarify two grade-related goals like, “I’ll achieve a B+ average in my classes,” or, “I’ll raise my GPA by a point next semester.”


Use the S.M.A.R.T. acronym to inform these goals. Make sure each is Specific (detailed), Measurable (how do we know we achieved it?), Achievable (is it reasonable, given available time and resources?), Relevant (does it relate directly to the desired solution?) and Time-bound (what’s the deadline for achieving it?).


For each goal, brainstorm several action steps that will lead to achievement. For example, the goal, "I'll raise my GPA by a point," could include action steps like, "Get a tutor for social geography," or, "Drop poker Thursday," or "Talk to professor about my work load."

Mistake #3: Modeling Poor Self-Care to Our Kids

Lifestyle balance is a tremendous challenge to college students, as it is to us. Normally, when stress increases, self-care decreases, and this has an enormous impact on performance. Most students are challenged to integrate stress management practices into their lifestyle once they return to school -- just like we are challenged to integrate stress management into our work lives.

How to Fix it:

Start planting seeds. Identify several small areas of your life in which you know you don’t practice good self care, and where it would be relatively easy to make a change. Just a few extra minutes per day of any kind of physical activity can make a big difference in your life.

You might decide to take a daily walk around the block, for example, or cut caffeine to two cups of coffee per day. It's most important to pick something that might be out of your comfort zone, but do-able! You can build on your initial success later. Share what you're doing, and the benefits you experience -- decreased stress at work, more mental and physical energy, better sleep, etc -- with your child.

Ask them to take a class with you! Yoga, boot camp, running, or any fitness/wellness activity can help. They may say no, but the key is for you to model the behavior and discuss the benefits. You're planting seeds in your child’s mind to prioritize healthy lifestyle behavior in any and all conditions.

I trust you'll find these suggestions helpful. Download my free 'Bounce Back! Handbook' to actually work through these exercises with your student.


Remember that poor academic performance now doesn't necessarily predict another bad semester. The factors that led to it are correctable, and correcting them leads to more personal growth in our kids -- and a strengthening of our relationships with them!

Dr. Joel Ingersoll helps college and high school students develop college transition and career success skills. As president & founder of Take On College, Joel has empowered thousands of students to maximize their potential, college experience and return on tuition. Joel is the author of the forthcoming book Take On College: Winning Strategies for College & Career Success! Sign up for helpful tips, articles, & resources!

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